Thursday, 1 October 2015

An Evening With Midleton Master Blender Billy Leighton

Earlier this year, I attended another wonderful event hosted by the Merchant Hotel in the centre of Belfast.  This was the second in their "By The Fire" whiskey events and welcomed Midleton's master blender Billy Leighton to take us through a range of whiskeys from the Midleton portfolio.

As with the previous event, with Colum Egan, the room was set and provided the perfect setting for the evening's festivities.

Tickets had sold out well in advance and the crowd was eagerly anticipating what we might be treated to, let's face it, these nights always have a wee surprise in store.

To get us in the mood we started off with a Jameson, Ginger & Lime, a drink that Jameson have tried hard to market and in fairness I think it's starting to take hold.  When out in the town I hear more and more people asking specifically for this and even at a recent leaving dinner, in Newtownards, the drink on offer was this very concoction.

It's a drink that works and is a perfect little taster for people that want to try something different and might bring more into the whiskey world.

As Billy Leighton introduced himself the mood was relaxed, and laid back, with no strict script and questions flowing back and forward.

The main line up for the evening was as follows: Powers "John's Lane", Redbreast 12yo, Redbreast 12yo cask strength, Redbreast 15yo and Redbreast 21yo.  Not bad at all for the £25 ticket price.

As the conversation carried on Billy acknowledged the perception of him working in a lab, bringing together the wondrous flavours we know and love, but he was very honest in comparing himself more to a stock controller.

It's an aspect of the whiskey world that is often overlooked.  With such a large company, he is responsible for managing the huge stock at Midleton, the ages and cask types, to ensure that age statements and quality are maintained year on year.

When you consider that Midleton has something like 45 warehouses on site, each containing millions of litres of spirit, you get an idea of the scale of the task that faces him.

He continued by highlighting how his task is very different from scotch blenders who would have a larger range to play with.  As all Midleton blends are produced on site it's very much in his hands to maintain the stanards throughout all the styles.

To really hit this home he described that, because the much revered Redbreast 21yo has some 28yo whiskey contained within it, he has to have the next 28 years worth of 21yo already maturing.  As part of his role he also has to forecast for 10 years, so now the overall forecast is 38 years, and as a sherry cask takes 5 years to make, and season, this is now increased to 43 years.....this has to be done for all brands and their relevant expressions!!

As if this wasn't enough he also would divide forecasts into optimistic, pessimistic and realistic as the market changes.  Unbelievable really, when you think about it.

As we sipped the 12yo we were  informed that it roughly contains 12 - 14yo whiskeys.

He touched on global brand reach by stating that they are starting to do well in Russia and South Africa, have been doing well in the USA for about 10-12 years and are quiet in China, at the moment, due to other brands.

As we moved onto the 15yo we were treated to more inside information.  He highlighted the make up of the whiskey by stating the key character is sherry matured with a mix of first fill & second fill casks and also stated there is some 19yo contained within.

He also informed us that this was first made, back in 2005, as a "one off" for La Maison du Whisky in Paris, France. 

Four years later marketing came along asking him to re-create this expression for general release.  As this was initially a one off, the components were not readily available, to make the same flavour profile, but it was re-created as best possible from an original bottle held at Midleton. 

Only now, is the 15yo, more or less, at the same level as it was for that '05 special release.

We finished with the 21yo, which I absolutely adore, and if the tasting had finished there then I would have went home very happy came the surprises.

Five, yes FIVE, more samples that had been taken straight from the casks at Midleton.

They were as follows:

1 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1994 and matured in a first fill port cask
(Used in Jameson Rarest Vintage)
2 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1998 and matured in a first fill sherry cask
3 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1997 and matured in a first fill bourbon cask
4 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1996 and matured in an American virgin oak cask
(Small amount used in Jameson Gold)
5 - Grain whiskey distilled in 1990 and matured in a second fill bourbon cask

I could not believe my luck!!

He took us through each and the flavours were out of this world from, the almost meaty, port matured Pot Still to the exceptional single grain, which is quite simply the finest single grain I have ever tasted.

I quizzed him specifically on the single grain, and why there has never been a Midleton single grain released, and it seems that marketing just aren't that interested in getting it out there. 

I think they're mad in the head as this would put anything else on the market to shame.  I suppose it may be needed for more important blends but I'm sure if they got together they could get some maturing right now, even for some sort of a special release like the Mano a Lamh.

To finish off the evening we were treated to something truly special.  A chance, albeit slightly rushed, to see Billy Leighton at work.  It was at this moment he collected up one of each of the sample bottles and went round each table asking how much to use and, with that, he set about creating what I shall call the "By The Fire Blend".  

As we suggested measures he adjusted them accordingly to balance the flavours and we were then treated to a taste of this once in a lifetime blend. 

Amazing, just simply amazing.

As Billy brought the evening to an end he left us to enjoy what was left of the samples and my oh my did they disappear quickly.  Maybe even back to some people's houses....I'm saying nothing.

All in all an absolutely awesome evening and a great chance, yet again, to hear from the people who truly are at the heart of Irish whiskey.  It's not the bosses of Pernod Ricard, or previously Diageo, who fund our much love distilleries, but the people actually working there, day in day out, creating something special for everyone to enjoy.

With people like Billy Leighton at the heart of Irish whiskey, especially with the passion he has, I know we're in very safe hands as Irish whiskey continues to grow.

As for the "By The Fire" event, I know they were having a break over the summer months but I believe they are planning to start up again soon with a possible visit from Tullamore on the cards.

Lastly I would just like to thank the Merchant Hotel, and Billy Leighton, for a memorable evening and I look forward to more of the same.

Until next time,



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